Navigating Customs with Musical Instruments

Moving any valuable items – like musical instruments – across borders can be difficult and time-consuming.  Customs officers abroad want to be sure that you will take your equipment with you when you leave their country, and customs officials on your return will want to be sure that you have not acquired your equipment while overseas. If, in either case, they are not convinced, you may have to pay import duty on your instruments, or worse, the equipment may be impounded. Inevitably, it will cause considerable disruption and inconvenience for your whole group.

The correct way to avoid these problems is to travel with a carnet. This is an official document, recognized in most countries (check the list on ATA’s website), that acts as a guarantee that any duty due will be paid.  All professional orchestras travel with a carnet, and it is our very strong advice that your group does, too.

The guarantee comes from a surety bond, which you can apply for at the same time you apply for the carnet.  As the carnet contains exact details of the instruments that will be taken, you should wait until close to your departure date before applying; the process takes only a week or so, though you should obtain the bond before then.

The cost of a carnet ranges from $200 to $330, depending on the total value of your equipment.  The cost of the bond is typically 1% of the value of the bond, which must be 40% of the total value (100% for Israel and South Korea).  For example, for a total value of $100,000:

$280: Processing fee

$400: Bond (1% of 40% of $100,000)

$680: TOTAL

Federal, state and local government agencies (including state schools and colleges) need not furnish a bond, but instead may pay a fee of $250 (in addition to the relevant processing fee).  This only applies if the carnet application form is signed by an officer of the school or university on behalf of that organization, thereby accepting financial responsibility.

For more information or to apply for a carnet, please visit

Should you decide not to travel with a carnet, there is a form issued by the US Customs Service which some of our groups have found useful. It is called a Certificate of Registration (form number 4455), and it certifies that your equipment was exported from the USA and that you may therefore bring it back into the country without paying duty.  That is all this form does; it offers none of the guarantees to overseas customs officers that a carnet does, and therefore offers you none of the protection.  Customs officers may, however, take the form as an indication of your intent to return the equipment to the US, and this may facilitate the process at the border.

In order to obtain this form, you may have to present all your instruments to customs prior to your departure.  For further information, please contact your local customs office.